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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Taste of '40s Diners : At Ruby's, you can enjoy '90s fare and visualize Andy Hardy in the next booth. The kids will eat it up.

August 07, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The '40s diner made a big comeback during the '80s, when the fountain drinks, sloppy burgers and other vernacular foods of a more inno cent time became virtual icons. Dozens of nearly identical retro-diners sprang up, as if stamped out by some giant, old-fashioned cookie cutter.

Ruby's, a chain based in Orange County, has been one of the most successful purveyors of this sort of culinary nostalgia. It just opened a branch in the Promenade Mall in Woodland Hills, and this red-and-white breadbox of a restaurant, with all the gloss of a cellophane-wrapped lollipop, is ideally suited to a mall. It's also a great place to bring the kids and let loose.

I personally find it all a bit daunting. Mind you, I quite like the red vinyl booths, the white Formica tabletops and the candy-cane uniforms on the waitresses. I'm just mildly disturbed by the fact that none of this rings true for a second.

Ruby's walls don't have just one or two old Coke posters, they are covered with them. When you look at the back of the menu, all you see is the logos of the big food conglomerates (Kraft, Hershey and Knorr, to name a few) that supply the restaurant. And the menu, with its eggless "eggstro'dinaire omelet," is distinctly of the '90s. With all due respect to people on low-cholesterol diets, any self-respecting hen would peck your finger off if you tried to pass this stuff around the chicken coop.

That said, I have enjoyed most of what I've eaten here. Ruby's makes a better-than-average breakfast, especially in its omelets (the real egg ones). These are probably the thinnest three-egg omelets you've ever seen, crepe-thin wrappers with good fillings. Mushroom, spinach, tomato and cheese is a great one, because the vegetables taste as if they have been fried separately.

Ruby's original malted waffle is another pleasure, even if you can't quite taste any malt. It's a light, spongy waffle that absorbs the fresh butter and good maple syrup just fine, and for an extra 60 cents they will mix pecans into the batter. I like Ruby's oatmeal because it is sumptuous, served with little plastic tubs of brown sugar, granola and butter. Side dishes such as the surprisingly tasty low-fat turkey sausage will make you feel less guilty about eating that glorified bowl of oatmeal.

The menu is mildly more classic when it comes to lunch and dinner, but hardly atavistic. A real '40s burger was likely to be mystery meat (when you ordered one, your waitress might chillingly call out to the cook, "Sweep up the kitchen!"), but at Ruby's you can have your burger made from beef (a full one-third of a pound of ground chuck), turkey (lean), chicken (a tender, boneless filet from the breast) or a mixture of rice, oats and wheat, mulched together in a patty called a veggie burger. All are available in more than a dozen incarnations, with toppings such as bleu cheese, guacamole or bacon, even a teriyaki glaze with pineapple on what the restaurant calls its "aloha burger."

The salads and sandwiches, though, wouldn't have turned many heads in the '40s--except, perhaps, for being on the large side. The Caesar and Cobb salads, both fairly orthodox, come in huge glass bowls. The Cobb has the requisite avocado, chicken, bleu cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and bacon, all nicely chopped and nicely presented. And the Caesar is only unusual in that one has the option of having it topped with a portion of grilled chicken--the same one, by the way, that you can have as a burger.

Fresh roast turkey comes piled high on a soft roll, served with lettuce, a sweet cranberry sauce and mayonnaise. There's a traditional BLT on a grilled bun, and a runny grilled cheese sandwich, too: grilled sourdough oozing American and Swiss cheese. Your waitress will probably suggest that you have your sandwich with an order of "frings, " a combo of onion rings and french fries that will probably come overcooked.

Free refills are served on all soft drink orders, but you may want to throw caution to the wind and have one of the fountain treats, especially one of the deluxe shakes, such as the Oreo cookie fantasy. I'd swear an entire box of Oreos goes into the blender to make it.

It's great, but it's nothing I remember from my childhood.

I wonder, will the kids of the future go to retro-'90s diners under the impression that the Oreo cookie fantasy was a classic '90s dish? And what will the retro-diners of the future actually serve under that name?

Where and When

Location: Ruby's, 6100 Topanga Canyon Blvd. in the Promenade Mall, Woodland Hills.

Suggested Dishes: Mushroom, tomato, spinach and cheese omelet, $4.85; veggie burger, $3.45; Cobb salad, $6.25; Oreo cookie fantasy, $2.65.

Hours: Breakfast 7 to 11:30 a.m. daily; lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Price: Lunch for two, $12 to $18. No alcohol at present. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

Call: (818) 340-7829.

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